The Brazilian Bomb: South America goes Ballistic

August 13, 1990, p. 10-11

As the United States worries about missiles in the hands of Iraq and other countries in the Middle East, an egregious case of missile proliferation is taking shape in its own back yard. A group of European companies has agreed to sell Brazil the technology to build a rocket motor capable of launching an intercontinental ballistic missile. If the sale goes through, the first non-U.S. ICBM will take up residence in the Western Hemisphere, Brazil will be able to sell long-range missiles to Iraq and Libya (its leading arms clients), and international efforts to stop the spread of large missiles to developing countries will crash to a halt.

The outlines of the deal are clear. The French company Societe Européenne de Propulsion (SEP) is joining forces with Volvo in Sweden, MAN in West Germany, and FN Motors in Belgium to teach Brazil how to produce the powerful Viking rocket engine, developed by France to lift satellites for the European Space Agency. Other European firms—including Saab Space, Alcatel-Kirk, Sfena, and Contraves—will supply Brazilian engineers with extensive training in on-board computers, guidance systems, and the techniques of launching multistage rockets. All of this assistance will enable Brazil to build accurate missiles big enough to carry nuclear warheads.

There is a simple motivation behind the deal: greed. These corporations own a majority share of Arianespace, a holding company for the European Space Agency’s Ariane launch vehicle. Rocket technology is being used as a convenient sweetener to lure Brazil into hiring the Ariane for satellite launches instead of McDonnell-Douglas’s Delta launcher. (McDonnell-Douglas can’t make a similar offer without violating the U.S. Arms Export Control Act.)

France and the Ariane group are practiced in this sort of deal, having traded missile technology for satellite launch contracts since at least 1975. In fact, since its creation, the Ariane group has garnered more than half of the world’s satellite launch market—at the expense of international security. In the mid-1970s SEP invited Indian engineers to participate in the Viking’s development and later licensed India to produce the Viking at home. The French propulsion technology contributed to the development of India’s intermediate-range Agni missile. Not surprisingly, India showed its gratitude by hiring the French-dominated Ariane to launch its satellites. In 1988 Arianespace booked two more Indian satellite launches. At about the same time, France offered India another powerful engine for India’s newest space rocket—also a secret deal.

The agreement with Brazil shows every sign of working the same way. Brazil is now turning its largest and most successful space rocket, the Sonda IV, into an intermediate-range, nuclear-capable missile. The con-version is being handled by a research arm of the Brazilian Air Force called CTA (the Aerospace Technology Center). Besides converting the Sonda IV to a missile, CTA is also converting natural uranium into nuclear-weapon-grade material at a secret installation, according to press reports confirmed by US. officials. There is no reason to expect that CTA will keep Brazil’s obligatory promise to restrict the European rocket technology to peaceful use. In fact, Brazil is already breaking a peaceful use pledge to West Germany. To import German nuclear equipment, Brazil promised to allow inter-national inspectors to verify that it would not be used to make atomic bombs. Not only has Brazil refused to allow inspections, it has even shifted German-trained engineers from the civilian to the military side of its nuclear program.

Brazil is one of the world’s largest arms exporters to the Third World. Its first three space rockets, the Sonda I, II, and III, were all developed into surface-to-surface missiles that Iraq, Libya, and Saudi Arabia purchased right off the production line. U.S. officials have con-firmed reports that Brazil is currently trying to produce a nuclear-capable missile for Libya and Iraq. Both Libya and Iraq already make poison gas for missile warheads and want to acquire nuclear weapons. Iraq has sent a representative to look at a Brazilian missile prototype, and Libya has offered to finance Brazil’s missile development program in exchange for a supply of missiles and the technology to make them.

Brazil has publicly rebuffed US. complaints about its cooperation with Libya and Iraq. In 1987 the Missile Technology Control Regime (Britain, Canada, France, Italy, Japan, West Germany, and the United States) agreed to restrict sales of any rocket that could carry a 500 kilogram payload a distance of more than 300 kilometers—limits the Viking clearly exceeds. Also a part of this nuclear non-proliferation treaty is an agreement not to sell the technology to produce such rockets. The Regime is the only international device for slowing missile proliferation. Although only a “gentle-man’s agreement” without international legal status or sanctions, it helps stigmatize such sales by providing a focus for international disapproval.

Brazil, which has publicly rejected the treaty, is exactly the kind of country the Regime’s drafters had in mind when they agreed to restrict missile technology. If France and Germany sell their production technology to Brazil, the Regime will be fatally undermined. No member country will abstain from sales that other members are freely making, and ballistic missiles will spread unchecked. The Ariane group—and the governments of France, Belgium, Sweden, West Germany, Switzerland, and Denmark—all seem perfectly willing to trigger such a free-for-all.

That means the United States must act alone. If President Bush really wanted to stop the Viking deal, he could threaten to cancel more than $50 million worth of SDI contracts held by Aerospatiale, SEP, Contraves, and other Ariane partners. Despite the appeal of this sanction, however, there is another that is faster, cheaper, and at least as powerful: publicity. Detailed public criticism of the offer to Brazil would produce exactly what the companies hope to avoid—public responsibility for their actions. Under cover of secrecy, the exporters can quietly argue their case for export licenses to key officials. With exposure, the deal would founder as the European public demanded explanations from the companies and their respective governments. Just over a year ago Bonn was publicly humiliated by revelations that German companies had sold poison gas technology to Libya for its plant at Rabta. Public disclosure forced the German government to stop its dangerous exports and tighten its lax controls.

The Viking deal is an important test. If it goes through, there is nothing to stop Ariane or other space-launch companies from selling the same technology to Argentina, Brazil’s rival, or to Pakistan, India’s rival. ICBMs could spring up around the globe. And the developed nations will find that for the first time since World War II their greatest threat will come not from super-power confrontation, but from their own exports.

GARY MILHOLLIN is a professor of law at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and director of the Wisconsin project on Nuclear Arms Control.  GERARD WHITE is assistant director of the project.